I get asked about swimming quite a bit, mainly whether it’s safe when you have diastasis recti, but I’m going to cover pregnancy as well as postnatal here, so I’ll start with that.

Swimming During Pregnancy

 

Swimming can provide relief from aches and pains often experienced during pregnancy, relieving the pressure of your bump by supporting it, and taking the strain off your back.

It’s also great for improving your circulation which is sometimes affected during pregnancy, because of all of the hormones running around your system.  The pressure of the water on your veins and arteries actually stimulates blood flow and can reduce swelling you may be experiencing, say in the feet or ankles.

A workout and relaxation all in one!

 

A trip to the pool also gives your muscles a great workout!  Water offers 12 times the resistance of air, and your deep abdominal muscles get in on the act too, as they help stabilise the pelvis in water.

The rhythmic action of the stroke can also be quite relaxing, as can the feeling of weightlessness.  For baby, the soft muffled sounds created by the water induce a feeling of calm and tranquility for him/her too.

Which stroke is best?

If you are experiencing any pelvic pain during pregnancy, I’d suggest that you avoid breast stroke leg action.  Even if you don’t suffer with SPD now, I’d be mindful of how you feel, and avoid kicking too hard/ agressively. Keep the kick narrow, and avoid a wide ‘froggy’ breast stroke kick.

I personally found freestyle/crawl a lot more comfrotable when pregnant, but I know not everyone is confident with this, and it can be quite tiring.

As a guide, on a scale of 1-10, you shouldn’t exert yourself above a 7 when pregnant. This means out of breath, but not uncomfortable: you should still be able to talk and hold a converstation (albeit a panting one)!

I’d also recommend buying a pair of goggles so you can swim with your head down, because this puts less pressure on your back.  Swimming with your head out of the water causes the pelvis to drop and accentuates the increased curve in the lumbar spine.

Swimming With Diastasis Recti

 

Ok, postnatal now. The question isn’t so much “is it safe”, as unless you have pelvic pain or a back problem, the risk of injury is low. It’s more can it worsen your diastasis, or prevent it from healing?

Firstly, people worry that being horizontal could put a downwards pressure on the abdominal wall. However water creates a hydrostatic pressure, and when you’re horizontal in the water the pressure from the water below (which helps give you buoyancy) will apply some compression to the abdomen.

There’s more to consider though, and your alignment in the water (or your technique) is really important too. If you have your head out of the water the whole time, then you’re arching your back (which may be sore) and stretching your abs. It flares out the ribs, which I see a lot in postnatal mums and you’re better off avoiding.

Let’s look at the 2 most popular strokes.

Breast Stroke

So if you’re going to swim breast stroke, head down (as in looking at the swimming pool floor) and in the water with each stroke! I can’t really go into technique much here, but if you watch Michael Phelps here, he actually keeps his back fairly neutral. Most of us don’t manage quite such a neat stroke though!

Also- if you still have any pelvic pain, the points above apply and I’d avoid breast stroke.

Front Crawl

I still find there can still be a flaring of the ribs, as when I swim in busy lanes I have to look up to see if anyone is in front of me. This arches my back a little and flares my ribs. I have to be VERY mindful of my technique to avoid it- again keep your gaze on the pool floor. Let’s look at Phelps again (may as well learn from the best!) and see how flat his body and spine is.

Keeping your hips up and kicking from the hips, using the butt muscles (instead of kicking from the knees) helps too, with both speed and glute strength (important for a healthy pelvic floor).

I also have to focus to keep my shoulders relaxed, and not up around my ears! Tight neck/ shoulders is common with my clients, so you don’t want to make that worse.

Core Strength and Shoulder Mobility

 

You also need to consider your flexibility. Lie down and reach your arms in the air.

swimming postnatal exercise watford
Then let them fall behind you.
swimming postnatal diastasis watford

Does your back arch and ribs flare out (as I nicely demonstrate and highlight with my snazzy editing skills)? If so then there’s a good chance that when you swim and reach in front, you’re doing this too.

If you engage your core can you lift your arms without arching your back (again demonstrated by me below- my ribs have dropped down and my back has a gentle curve,rather than a larger arch)?

swimming postnatal engage core

You need to engage your core to do this. Be honest with yourself, can you do this while you’re swimming? You might be better off working on increasing your core control before you get back in the pool.

The other thing that might be in issue is shoulder mobility. If your arms won’t fully reach up or flop to the side, you may need to increase your flexibility in that area first too.

postnatal swimming watford personal trainer

Breathing

No breath holding (this applies to pregnancy too). When your head is under water exhale, then inhale when out. Holding your breath places pressure on the core and floor.

Core Connection

If you’ve done some postnatal core training and can engage your deep core and breathe diaphragmatically, then that really will help. Personally I would work on that postnatally before getting in the pool. This way you’re controlling your core, controlling your spine and rib position, and minimising any pressure on your diastasis.
Swimming is a very repetitive movement, and you don’t want to be doing it in a way that repeatedly puts pressure on a tummy that needs to heal.

The Take Home

Swimming isn’t necessarily bad for diastasis, but it depends on your technique!

Ultimately, if you feel swimming makes you feel a bit human again, gives you some time out, and you feel better for it, then GO FOR IT!

BUT, if you have a large diastasis, or one that isn’t healing, maybe consider this could be a factor. Think about your technique, and it might be that you need to take a break for a bit whilst you work on restoring it.

While the sun was shining I got in the garden and filmed a couple of workouts to share on my Facebook page.

2 speedy circuits, postnatal and pregnancy friendly (bar one exercise when you’re final trimester, and provided no SPD), one for the lower body and one for the upper.

They’re time-lapse ones, to keep it quick for the sake of social media, BUT I’ve written up the circuits in this blog, with real time video demos of the exercises linked, so you can try them at home. All you need is a resistance band, but they are inexpensive and so versatile it’s worth getting one.

Here’s the type I use (I haven’t actually got this one as I buy long rolls and cut them out as I get through so many, but with most brands medium is an appropriate strength, and 1.2 metres is long enough.)

 

Postnatal and Pregnancy Lower Body Workout

Banded Side Steps x 20 Use a mini band as in link here or you can use a long resistance band as I did in the time-lapse video. Stick your bum out in a mini squat position and take 20 steps, 10 in each direction. Works the butt and outer thighs.

Banded Squats with Pulse x 10 Inhale as you lower, exhale as you pulse and rise. The band adds extra resistance, the pulse is HARD, but if newly postnatal or very pregnant a squat without the band and pulse is better, as in the video here.

Deadlift with Band x 10 Keep ribs over pelvis throughout, inhale and push your bum back, exhale and rise, driving the action with your glutes.

Reverse Lunges x 20 Alternating. Inhale and step back, dropping down so your knees are at 90 degrees. Exhale and return to start.

Banded Leg Extensions x 10 each side Hands under shoulders, knees under hips. Wrap the band more glutes! No need for the band if you’re pregnant or newly postnatal (and is too much strain for a larger diastasis), and final trimester this will start to get too hard even without the band, so you can do it sliding your leg back whilst keeping your toe on the floor, then skip it completely.

Repeat circuit as needed!

 

Postnatal and Pregnancy Upper Body Workout

Pulldowns x 10 Sorry no video for this one, but detailed instructions: hold resistance band overhead. Exhale and bring your arms down to the side of your body with a 90 degree bend at the elbows, with the band behind your back. Inhale and return. Engage core to keep ribs down (rather than let them flare out). Good for the back and shoulder and chest mobility.

Chest Press x 10 Exhale as you straighten the arms, inhale as you bend them. Aim to bend the elbows to 90 degrees, forearms parallel. Works chest, triceps and shoulders.

Open the Door x 10 Exhale as you open your arms up, inhale as you return. Works deep shoulder muscles and opens shoulders, good for posture.

Pull Aparts x 10 Keep ribs down as you exhale and pull the band apart. Keep shoulders relaxed, slide shoulder blades together. Great for the back, shoulders and posture.

Bent Over Row 10 Keep a neutral spine‐ this means not letting your back bend forwards. Bicep Curls 10 No video but very simple! Stand on the band with arms straight and exhale as you bend your arms.

Overhead Tricep Extension x 10 each side Keep your ribs over pelvis‐ there’s a temptation to let your back arch here! Exhale as you straighten your arm.
Repeat circuit as needed!

 

These are pregnancy and postnatal Safe, BUT Stop anything that causes pain, and book into see a Women’s Health Physio‐ many do packages with a pregnancy and postnatal appointment. All exercise carries a risk of injury, so consult your doctor before starting anything new

Have you got an aching upper back?

I seem to be seeing this quite a bit with clients at the moment, and a common cause is slouching, which granted most of us are guilty of, but feeding a baby seems to make it so much worse! I’m wondering if ‘baby-feeding back’ can become a thing, like ‘tennis-elbow’?

So a massage will help, right?

Yes and no. Yes in that absolutely, when you have a collection of knots between your shoulder blades that could earn you a Scouts badge, a good massage feels glorious.

But this can be short term, because it hasn’t addressed the cause of your soreness.

What is the cause?

I’ve already mentioned poor posture when feeding, slouching or hunched over baby. And there’s a chance it’s not just when feeding. Next time you’re in a queue or waiting for the kettle to boil, pay attention to how you’re standing: have you let your shoulders slump forwards?

Do you find yourself standing like the figure on the left or the right?

If you spend too much time sitting or standing with rounded shoulders, your chest is in a shortened, tight position, and your back is stretched. This stretch on the back muscles mean they become tense, fighting this pull and developing sore knots.

Massaging these tights spots will help make you feel and move better in the short term, so keep doing that, but your chest needs releasing and lengthening to stop that strain on your back. Even better, strengthening your back will really help you to maintain better alignment and prevent the ache from returning. Here’s how.

1. Hand to Wall Chest Stretch

This is a lovely chest release, and targets down the arm and wrist too, which can get tight from all the lifting mums do! Do one arm, then before the second do some arms circles to compare how your arms feel. Does the side you’ve released feel a lot looser?

You may want to release your shoulders too, as I find a lot of cients have tension here. A stretch or some self-massage are fine, just keep the stretch gentle and hold it long enough that you feel the muscle has released (you can compare the stretched side to the other like above, to make sure it’s worked). No need to use your hand even, just tilt your head to one side.

2. Wall Angel.

A simple exercise you can do anywhere, the wall angel is great for strengthening your upper back.

Stand with your feet 3-4 inches from the wall, and there should be a gentle curve in your low back. When you raise your arms to the wall maintain that cureve- if you feel your back arch then gently engage your tummy muscles to maintain your posture.

Once your arms are up, try to relax your shoulders, rather than allowing them to hunch. For the vast majority of people just holding this position is enough, not need to slide your arms up yet. Start with 30 seconds.

While there try to keep your breathing sow and controlled, with your ribs opening up to the sides.

Doing the hand to wall stretch before the wall angel helps to make the wall angel easier. Both together only takes a couple of minutes so you can do them 2-3 times a day.

3. Remove the Cause!

Finally,you need to remove what’s causing your back to ache, in this case poor feeding habits! Try supporting your back and baby with cushions when feeding so you can sit more upright, and if you’re bottle feeding try changing which side you feed from too.

Of course there can be other reasons for an aching, including how you hold baby, previous injuries or conditions. Core strength can also play a big part, and I’d always recommend a restorative postnatal exercise programme. And remember, if you have any severe pain, especially in the spine itself (I’m just talking about musclular aches in this blog) then see a therapist.

If you have any questions about anything in this blog you can find me, along with other pregnancy and postnatal professionals, in this Facebook support group. We’ll be happy to answer any questions.

“What’s the best exercise for toning my tummy?”

I probably get asked this question more than any other. Which is understandable- I remember how weak I felt in the months after giving birth, and looking down at a tummy that didn’t look like mine anymore!

Your postnatal core isn’t the same as your pre-pregnancy core. For a start it’s about 10x more amazing because it’s just grown a baby. So let’s give it the love it deserves!

Which means not rushing things for a start. The pressure to ‘bounce’ back can be immense, and I don’t just mean physically. Emotionally it takes time too, to adapt to your new role as mummy, yet new mums are up and about so quickly.

And this can affect how well you core recovers. Nutrition, rest, stress, all of this helps early healing. Check out how new mums get treated in some cultures!

But when you are ready to start exercising it can feel like there’s a huge list of what not to do, and not much guidance on what you can do! The go-to exercises for ab toning, like crunches, are no good, and running shouldn’t be rushed.

There are SO many fantastic exercises you CAN do though! Here are 5 here to get you started.

 

Just remember that these are for progressively strengthening your core. I always work on breathing technique with postnatal clients before any exercises- it’s vital you get this right to get the most from them, especially if you have diastasis recti.

And when it comes to that postnatal bulge, it could be a case of weakened muscles that need gradually strengthening, but if there’s a layer of fat on top then you’ll need to look at your nutrition, and I always recommend walking for postnatal clients too (it’s massively underrated).

1. Heel Slides

These are great for the early postnatal period when you’re just returning to exercise. It’s about finding and connecting to your deep core muscles, (not your abs) as you stabilise your pelvis while applying a very gentle load to your core. Building this base is the first step towards a more toned tummy.

There are a few variations on this exercise, and for some clients, including those with a larger diastasis, I give a slightly different version to this where you keep your heel on the floor and exhale through the entire exercise, however for most of my postnatal clients this is the one we start with.

2. Bridge

Love this one! For many ‘core’ means ‘abs’ or six pack, but the core, as well as including muscles much deeper than the abs, is about all the muscles around it too, and how well they function as a team.

So here we’re hitting the low back AND the butt, which work together. Plus, if you nail the breathing you’ve got the deep core involved too.

Again there are variations, but here I’ve added a ‘squeeze’ with a pilates ball to give the pelvic floor some extra work.

3. Straight Arm Pulldown

Love this one too! Since we spend the vast majority of our days upright, it makes sense to do some exercises that way! This is another one that I use in the early postnatal period for connecting to the deep core muscles and perfect for moving from the mat to standing work. It applies a gentle load to the core, which means enough to stimulate tissue regeneration and help heal diastasis without overdoing it and making it worse.

Really try to focus on the exhale, and getting a good 360 expansion (read this blog if that doesn’t make sense) on the inhale. Alignment is really important too- ribs over pelvis, no arching the back or thrusting your hips forwards here!

4. Half-Kneeling Push

So this is a fantastic exercise when it comes to getting ‘bang for your buck’. When you’re short on time (as most mums are!) this works the core and the chest, triceps and the split stance engages your legs and butt as they stabilise your pelvis.

With your shoulders relaxed, and wrist, elbow and shoulder level, your push forwards and exhale. The pressure of the band pulling you backwards engages your core, and you can add a twist which mimics how we tend to actually use our core: pushing a door open, playing tennis or boxing for example, we twist.

I wouldn’t start with the twist, but build to it. However this can be adapted to suit nearly any level, by adjusting the resistance from the band. You can keep it incredibly light so as not to create too much pressure (which we don’t want when you first return to exercise after baby) and focus on the deep core connection, then build to a much stronger band to really tighten the muscles around your waist.

5. Birddog

This is such an amazing core exercise (when done properly). It works your entire torso and pelvis as you use your butt when you straighten your legs AND your upper back and shoulders to stabilise your arm and shoulder blade!

PLUS the ability to co-ordinate your opposite arm and leg (like when you walk or run) is a really important movement pattern. There’s a reason we learn to crawl before we walk- it develops the necessary co-ordination, stability and strength. So this is becoming quite a trendy exercise- check out this Washington Post article about how crawling is the new plank!

Unfortunately I see this done badly a LOT. Remember to keep it SLOW and straighten your leg from your hip using your butt muscles, NOT arching your lower back (although yeah I’m sure it does look more sexy in an Insta post). Also try to avoid shifting your weight side to side too much. This gets easier with practise as it requires using your core more, but the pole on my back in the video is to demonstrate alignment and gives me feedback so I can feel any weight shift or postural changes.

This really is deceptively hard though and NOT one I use on clients with a very large or soft diastasis- the pulldowns, bridges and heel slides are a better place to start, then progress to this.

For more advice download my 10 Tips for getting back in shape after having a baby.

Disclaimer: consult with a medical professional before making any changes to your exercise routine, especially if you haven’t done any restorative postnatal work- be sensible about what you attempt! See full disclaimer here. If you’re unsure whether any of these are suitable then please see a postnatal qualified instructor or a Women’s Health Physio, or comment below and I’ll do my best to help.